By Jay Werkheiser
Ari allowed his skimmer to brush the outer edge of Nouvelle Terre’s atmosphere. He tried to imagine air jostling the light nanofiber support frame, whistling through the skimmer’s magsails. Excitement pulsed through his veins at the thought of being so close to the blue-and-white surface, perhaps closer than any human had ever dared. Nothing but his skinsuit and a few hundred kilometers of atmosphere separated him from the living, breathing landscape below. He spread his arms and legs, trying to feel the miniscule tug of atmospheric drag.
Is that what wind feels like?
His faceplate HUD showed a ripple in the magsail’s yaw loop. The threat of a coil collapse brought his mind back into focus, and he hiked up the field strength to gain some altitude. He savored every precious minute the skimmer took to climb away from the atmosphere. Nouvelle Terre’s secondary sun climbed over the horizon, visible only because the primary sun hadn’t yet risen. He scanned the starry sky, taking advantage of the view before primary sunrise darkened his faceplate. Earth’s distant sun was almost directly overhead, a pinpoint at the tail of a zig-zag of stars. The drive flare that cut across the constellation chilled his good mood. After a generation of silence, what could the Earth people possibly want?
Bah. Figuring that out was the job of bureaucrats. Ari preferred jockeying around with a skimmer, launching and retrieving microprobes, and taking time to enjoy the freedom of flight. Before long, the Gardien rose above the limb of the planet. He’d be home within a half hour, pining for his next chance to fly free.
“That you, Ari?” If his solitude had to be interrupted by a human voice, he could do worse than Maura’s.
“Who else would it be?”
He knew damn well who she was afraid it might be. He tilted his head upward toward the spear of light that dominated the sky. A new ship from Earth arriving unannounced after all these years was reason enough to be on edge.
“I’ll have your approach vector in a moment.” Maura’s image in his faceplate wore the drive flare like a burning gash on her forehead. “Your drop was perfect. The microprobe will skim the atmosphere deep enough to pick up some dust samples, but high enough to avoid surface contamination. With any luck, some of those dust grains will carry living spores.”
“We wouldn’t need luck if they’d let us dive lower. Damn Earthborn are too cautious.”
“You managed to get a pretty deep dive on that last orbit.” She pursed her lips in mock disapproval. “You’re going to catch hell for your little maneuver.”
“What? I was just dropping low for a perigee kick.”
Her laugh was pure music. “Good luck getting the director to buy that one. She’s in a foul mood.”
He snorted, momentarily fogging his faceplate. “She doesn’t need my help. Dear old Mom takes foul to a new level, even for an Earthborn.”
“Don’t be cruel. They earned the right to be grumpy.”
“Maybe they’d be more caring if they hadn’t cranked us out of their wombs like an assembly line.”
“Have some respect. You don’t know how long they’ll be around.”
“We’ll be restocking our supply of Earthborn soon, from the looks of it.” He gestured toward the light as he spoke, even though his helmet’s cam couldn’t show it. “It warms my heart to know that even the Secretary-General has no idea why Earth sent a second ship after all these years.”
She huffed. “You have no respect for authority, Ari.”
“It’s all part of my charm.” He flashed a grin that he hoped was rakish before realizing that it was wasted out here where she couldn’t see it.
A partly suppressed smile bloomed on her face. “What would be charming is treating me to one of those new beefmeat burgers imported from the moon base. I hear they taste just like natural meat back on Earth.”
“And who would know? The Earthborn are so old even their taste buds are dying.”
Her head shook back and forth in his faceplate. “You shouldn’t be talking like that on an open channel.”
“All right, I’ll be good.” He grinned. “Now are you going to give me an approach vector or am I going to do another orbit?”
“Uh…hold on a sec. Ari? I have the director on the line.”
“What? Did she hear–”
“Shhh. I’m getting instructions now.”
“She probably just wants to bust my ass about dropping too deep into the atmosphere. Heaven forbid we risk contaminating their precious pristine planet with my ashes.”
“Okay, she’s sending a new orbit for you.”
“What the hell? She wants me to take another lap? Is something wrong with the microprobe?”
“No, the probe’s fine. I don’t like this, Ari. She wants me to sign off. She’s taking over–”
Maura’s image dissolved into the black of the sky. He turned his focus back to the Gardien, wondering what was going on there. The bright point of light, now high above the horizon line, offered no answers. After an endless pause, the incoming message indicator lit.
The director’s gaunt face floated before him. She looked desiccated, like a corpse left outside to vacuum dry. A specter from a distant world, Ari thought. This new world is ours to explore, not theirs. Explore, but never touch.
Her sunken eyes pinned Ari in place. “Skimmer pilot, report your status.” The voice was scratchy and hoarse, weary from two hundred years of life, yet still it carried the aura of authority.
He eyeballed the dropdown at the top left of his faceplate and brought up the system check display. The bioscrubbers were pumping out oxygen faster than he could breathe it; the O2 tanks were full.
The magsail loops were well below the critical temperature where they would stop superconducting. “Nominal, ma’am.” After a moment’s pause he added, “Except the radio. I lost contact with shipboard control.” But that’s not a malfunction.
“I know.” She nodded slowly, carefully, as though afraid her neck might snap. “For security, I will be your only contact with the Gardien during this mission.”
That put a lump in his throat. “And what mission is that?”
She gazed at him, unmoving, for a long moment. “A small vessel has entered orbit of the planet.”
“Not one of ours, I assume.” He glanced once again at the enigmatic flare from Earth. “They’re pretty far out and still under heavy deceleration. I’d have expected them to wait until they made orbit.”
“Clearly Earth’s propulsion technology has improved since we left.”
“So the Earth people put a, what, probe or something into orbit. What am I going to be able to do about it?”
“A shuttle. For now, just observe. You’re the only manned asset I have on orbit at the moment.”
Asset? That’s all I am to her? Before he could say anything, his HUD indicator signaled an incoming data packet. New orbital parameters. He eyeballed the dropdown at the top left of his faceplate and brought up a visual overlay. The orbit was eccentric, with a perigee lower than he had ever gone. His heart skipped at the thought. Permission to skim the upper atmosphere? Hell yeah!
Excitement bubbling in his veins, he hardly noticed when the director disconnected. The forbidden dream — to touch a living world — was about to come one step closer. But to touch was to contaminate, he knew, to introduce his alien proteins and nucleic acids into an ecosystem that might not be able to handle them. We’d never know what was native and what was from Earth. We’d lose irreplaceable data. All true, but so damned frustrating.
His altitude grew gradually toward apogee, giving Ari plenty of time to stare at the living world below. His eyes traced the arc of a coastline, vivid blue overlaid on shades of tan and green, until he lost it in swirled white clouds. He tried to imagine what it would be like to stand on that beach, to feel the moist wind in his face. What sounds would there be? What did it smell like?
“Um, Ari?” Maura’s voice, tight with stress, startled him. “I’m defying orders by contacting you, so I’ll have to make this quick.”
He glanced up at the curved horizon line. The Gardien was a bright light shimmering through the upper edge of atmosphere. “What’s wrong?”
“They’re planning to land.”
“Who? The people from Earth? Nonsense. They sent us to preserve the ecosystem. They wouldn’t risk contaminating it.”
Atmospheric distortion crackled in his ear. Their ancestors sent our mothers; we were frozen embryos when that decision was made. Attitudes back on Earth may have changed.
How dare they risk destroying a lifetime of study? How dare they touch the world, experience it up close, achieve his dream.
And what the hell was Ari supposed to do about it?
Somehow, solitude had lost its charm. He busied himself by fiddling with the radio. Maybe the director hadn’t shut down his emergency channel. His heart thumped in his chest when he found the radio wouldn’t respond to his command. His oxygen-use indicator briefly flashed yellow — he was using oxygen faster than the bioscrubber was producing it.
He forced his breathing into a practiced rhythm, slow and steady. No sense depleting the O2 tanks unnecessarily. He eyeballed the radio diagnostic software. Red error messages scrolled up his faceplate. The radio was fried.
Wait. The content of the error messages belatedly registered. The radio was fine; it was the software that was fried. And how exactly did that happen?
The director’s data packet must’ve contained more than orbital data. She really doesn’t want me contacting anyone. What else did she sabotage?
Hell with her. He looked up along the skimmer’s carbon fiber frame. The magsail’s superconducting loops doubled as his radio antenna. The kilometer-long nanofiber filaments that made the loops were invisibly thin, and even if he could see them he wouldn’t have been able to manipulate them by hand. Not without risking a coil collapse. Without those superconducting coils pushing against Nouvelle Terre’s magnetosphere, he would have no way to maneuver.
That left the backup transceiver, a small dish mounted on the bottom of the skimmer’s frame. The software for that was scrambled too, but it should be easy enough to write a few lines of code to keep it aimed at the nearest geosynchronous relay satellite. If he remembered its longitude correctly.
He activated the faceplate keyboard. Writing code by eyeball was frustratingly slow. His temples throbbed with stress by the time he was ready to test it.
Was that a voice in the static? He tweaked the longitude value by a fraction of a degree.
“Shuttle Feynman to unidentified craft. Can you respond?”
Ari’s heart tried to claw its way out of his chest. I’m a skimmer jockey, not a diplomat. He blew out a few deep breaths and eyeballed the transmit icon. “Are you really from Earth?” His voice wavered, rising in pitch as he spoke. Stupid first words.
“That we are. We’ve come to join the colony. Only, we can’t seem to find any of your settlements.”
“Settlements? On the surface, you mean? We study the surface remotely, from orbit.”
Ari hesitated, his mouth open, unsure what to say. He wished he could talk to Maura.
“You got a name, son?”
“My name’s Ari.”
“Well, Ari, you might want to give your orbit a nudge. You’re going to pass dangerously close to us.”
He pulled down the graphics overlay on his HUD. The skimmer’s nanoprocessor had located the Earth shuttle and showed its projected orbit as a bright green curve. Sure enough, his orbit intersected it near perigee.
“Sorry about that, Earth ship.”
“Aw, hell. Call me Bill.”
Ari eyeballed the nav dropdown, nudged the magsail’s current.
What the hell? He tried again, with the same result.
“Um, Bill? I’m having a bit of a problem here. You’ll have to clear a path for me.”
“Understood.” There was a long pause while Bill attended to whatever details he had to take care of. “I’ll fire a quick burn, push myself above and behind you. There’s gonna be hell to pay, though. It’ll delay my landing by at least two orbits.”
“You can’t land.”
“And why would that be, son?”
“That’s a unique ecology down there, something new and alien.” He repeated the words almost verbatim from the schoolvids. “It needs to be preserved. Introducing Earth life before we understand it could be disastrous.”
“You came all this way just to hang in orbit and watch?”
“Observe, study, report. Our mothers have been sending yearly data bursts back to Earth since they got here.”
“Records from before the war are sketchy. The receiver stations must’ve been lost.”
War? A queasy feeling rose in his stomach. After a long moment, he managed to say, “The Earthborn taught us that Earth was unified.”
“What? Oh, you mean the UN? Broke up years ago when the Chinese seceded.”
“You didn’t get any of our data bursts?”
“All we knew is that there was a colony at Alpha Centauri. We came prepared to conquer the wilderness, not for life in orbit. Hell, our anti-rad meds are almost gone.”
“Meds? Why not use gene therapy? My adrenal cortex produces all the androstenediol I need to keep me safe from radiation.”
“You’re genetically engineered?”
“No, we use gene therapy. We’re hoping to engineer the genes directly into the next generation. Save them the booster shots.”
There was a long pause. “We have laws against that.”
“Earth has laws. They’re four light years away.”
“Humph. Maybe. Attitudes are harder to change than laws. There’s a lot of people who would die before they pollute their bodies with foreign genes.”
Ari shook his head behind his faceplate, even though he had an audio-only connection. “I guess I just don’t understand Earth people.”
“Goes both ways, son. I couldn’t imagine living my whole life in a tin can.”
Not a tin can, but surely cramped quarters compared to an entire planet. How can we even begin to relate to them? Unsure what to say, he let the silence drag on. His eyes drifted back to the HUD. The shuttle’s projected orbit shifted slowly, sluggishly. Yet the orbits still intersected. His skimmer was adjusting the magsail current automatically, maintaining a collision course. He manually cranked the pitch loop’s current.
Panic rising up in his throat, he desperately scanned the horizon line for the Earth shuttle. Not a chance — even if it were naked-eye visible, it would still be below the horizon.
Incoming message. He nearly jumped out of his skinsuit when the light came on. He eyeballed the receive icon.
The director’s skeletal image appeared on his faceplate, her eyes stern, her jaw set. “Break off communication with the Earth shuttle at once.”
He almost welcomed the familiarity of her emotionless tone, her lifeless face. “I’m just trying to understand them, ma’am.” He felt like a child standing before her judgment.
“Unacceptable. You will communicate with no one.”
“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to keep me quiet. What are you trying to hide?”
She sighed, a rasping groan from her lungs. “They are dangerous.”
He nodded involuntarily. They very well might be. But how did she know that? How did she know that the craft was a manned shuttle? Or that they were planning to land? “You’ve been in communication with the Earth ship.” It was an accusation, not a question.
She stared long and hard. The fire in her eyes faded. A slow, stiff nod confirmed his suspicions. “The Secretary-General has been negotiating with their leaders. They won’t listen to reason.”
“You hid it from us. All this time you knew they were coming, what they intended, and you kept us in the dark.” The realization struck Ari square in the chest — he knew more than was good for him. “And just what is my mission?” His voice quivered.
“We cannot allow them to contaminate the ecosystem. I am truly sorry.”
“You uploaded a virus with your data packet. Took over control of my magsails.” A glance at the HUD overlay showed the orbits still intersecting, despite the Earth shuttle’s evasive maneuvers. Even a light craft like the skimmer — maybe 150 kilos of man and support frame — became a deadly projectile at orbital speed. He would do significant damage to the Earth shuttle, if not turn it to slag.
She sat motionless for an eternity, while Ari waited to hear his death sentence. The oxygen-use telltale flashed yellow in his faceplate, and he realized that he was breathing fast and hard. Finally she spoke. “So many sacrifices.”
So that’s it. “Let me talk to Maura. You owe me at least that much.”
Her head moved sluggishly from side to side. “I can’t allow you to communicate with anyone on the ship. I’ll relay a message for you.”
“Who is your gestational mother, young man?”
Her gaze wavered for just a moment. “Oh. There have been so many.” Her eyes no longer focused on Ari, but on the distant past behind him.
He broke contact, allowing his silence to speak for him. Her image winked out, leaving him with nothing but the drumbeat of his pulse in his ears. The stars ahead, just above the horizon line, wavered with atmospheric distortion. The living landscape below slid past him as he drifted inexorably toward extinction. What price is too high to preserve an entire ecosystem? The Director had made her answer clear.
“Uh, Ari?” He jerked to attention at the sound of the Earthman’s voice in his helmet. “You mind shifting course away from us?”
Damn. “Um, yeah. I have a real problem here. You need to abort your landing. Head back to your ship.”
“No can do. Orders and all that.”
“Listen. The Secretary-General is serious about this. If you try to land, we’re going to be orbital debris.”
“Aw, hell. Why would you want to do that?”
“She’s using me as a guided missile and I can’t do a damn thing about it.”
“This thing steers like a pig, son. Even if I started a burn right now, you’d be here before I broke orbit.”
“I don’t think we’re going to live through this.”
There was a long silence. Finally, Bill’s voice came through soft and gentle. “You may not. I have orders to blast you out of the sky if need be.”
They brought weapons. For a brief moment, the thought was more disturbing than Ari’s own impending death.
He wondered what kind of weapons they had. Projectile launchers, laser weapons, particle beams? His gaze dropped to the living world below and he wondered how they might devastate the pristine ecosystem. We spent our lives worried about the consequences of a single microorganism wrecking havoc. What about a swarm of armed Earthmen?
But what about his own people — his own gestational mother — only too willing to kill for a planet they’ve never even touched?
He was dropping low over Nouvelle Terre’s pole, heading for perigee near the equator. His HUD showed the magsail maneuvering loops pulsing with current, pushing against the planet’s intense magnetic field to shift his orbit. Adjusting to the Earth shuttle’s maneuvers. He tried in vain to crank up the current in the main thrusting loop to increase his speed and push himself into a higher orbit. Perigee kick. The nanoprocessor refused his commands. If only he had some way to adjust the magnetic fields.
He inhaled sharply at the idea. He just might live through this after all. But the Earthmen would live too, and they’d surely land. What cost is too high?
“You there, Bill?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“How long do I have?”
“We’ll have to hit you as soon as we have line of sight. Even so, dodging the debris will be dicey.”
“I need to know why.”
“You have to know that landing on the surface will do immeasurable damage. Even if you don’t harm the ecology directly, you’ll destroy the opportunity to study it. It’ll be contaminated, and we’ll never know what it was like before. Why would you do that?”
Ari heard an exhaled sigh. “Hell, kid, no one wants to despoil your world. We’re just looking for a new home. You know, a place to raise children without fear of pollution or fallout.”
“But you don’t know how Earth life will interact with the life down there.” He swept his arm across the expanse of the world below him as though Bill could see him. “We’ll never get another chance to study the ecosystem in its natural state.”
“I’m not here to debate philosophy with you, son. All I know is that we need a place to live. Think how much more we can learn by getting up close and personal with the life down there.”
“We already know a lot. We…” And what do we know, really? We’ve been here for a generation. “We know how the pseudoplants down there do photosynthesis. We know they use something called pyranosyl-RNA for their genes. We know…we know a lot. I’m not a scientist.” His words didn’t sound convincing, even to his own ears.
There was a long pause. “You’re going to be coming over the horizon soon and I’m going to have to…” His voice caught, as though unwilling to say the words. “I’m gonna have to do something I don’t want to do.”
“Can you hit me with a beam of charged particles?” He hadn’t realized he was going to say it until the words came out. His heart pulsed in his ears.
“Uh, yeah, I’m sure we could rig something, but why — oh, I get it. The beam will push against your magsail and deflect your path, almost like a particle beam launch system. Brilliant. But the radiation would fry you.”
“It would fry an Earthman. Maybe not me.”
Ari heard Bill whistle loud and low. “You have balls of steel, kid.”
“One more thing. My ship’s blocking my transmissions. There’s someone I’d like to talk to before this goes down.”
“No problem.” Ari could practically hear him grin. “I can punch a signal through anything they’ve got.”
Nothing to do but wait and wonder. He looked down at the deep blue ocean below him and was rewarded with a flood of guilt. Is my life really worth the risk to the planet? Risk versus reward. On the surface, they could learn in a year more than we’ve learned in a generation.
“Okay, Ari.” Bill’s voice startled him. “I’ll relay your signal with a little bit of a kick. It’ll get through. Transmit whenever you’re ready.”
He switched to Maura’s comm channel. “Are you there, Maura?”
Her face appeared on his faceplate, grainy and pixelated. “Ari? Are you all right?” As she spoke, her image froze, then jumped once again to real time.
“I think so.” He knew she’d hear the lie in his voice, so he didn’t wait for her to call him on it. “I have a bit of a problem. I’m going to be taking a few rads out here. I need to know how much is too much.”
Her voiced tensed. “How much? How fast?”
“Bill? You listening in?”
“I’m here, son. We’re getting the particle beam set up now. We’re going to have to wait until you come over the horizon, so you’ll be damn close. We’ll have to give you a pretty big dose to deflect you enough. Call it eight to ten Sieverts.”
Maura’s image froze again, this time with eyebrows knotted in concern. “I don’t know,” her voice said from the still image. “That’s cutting it close, especially since it’s going to come over a short period of time. Androstenediol isn’t immunity, it just helps you keep your blood and marrow cell counts up.” His faceplate jumped to a moving image, still wearing the same furrowed brow. “You’re going to get sick, at the very least. Ari…” Her voice wavered.
Ari choked back tears. “Hey, I’ll be fine. You know me; I’m too insolent to die when I’m told to.”
She exhaled a tiny laugh.
Bill’s voice spoke in his ear, gentle and soft. “I just activated the particle beam. You should see a change in your orbit soon.”
Ari waited for — what? Pain? Tingling? He felt nothing. He activated the HUD’s graphics overlay. His projected orbit shifted to the right as he watched. Thrust is perpendicular to the beam path.
Would it be enough?
The orbits still passed so close they appeared to overlap. The Earth shuttle was approaching fast, but he still couldn’t find it with his naked eye.
“Ari.” Maura’s voice in his ear was husky with emotion. “If you don’t make it –”
“I will.” But the lines still intersect.
Her image nodded, jerky and pixilated.
Bill’s voice cut in, tense. “I’m not sure about this.”
Ari thought he saw a light behind Maura’s ghostly image, low on the horizon line. A star?
Before he could be sure, it brightened and was gone.
The HUD showed that he’d crossed the Earth shuttle’s orbit. He realized that he’d been holding his breath. He blew it out in a blast of air against his faceplate.
“Woo-hoo! That was close!” The tension was gone from Bill’s voice. “Your heart in your throat, kid?”
Ari nodded. He can’t see you. “It’s still beating, so it’s all good.”
It occurred to Ari that Bill hadn’t been sure they were going to miss. He’d risked his life for Ari. “You should have shot me down,” he said. “Why didn’t you?”
“Hell, I’m no killer, son. Not if I can avoid it.” He paused a long moment, then added, “You’re not the only one who can disobey orders. Looks like we’re both going to catch some hell.”
“Your leaders should go easy on you. At least they’ll get the landing they wanted.”
“Maybe. All this maneuvering has my orbit fouled up. I don’t think I can make a safe approach to the landing zone. I’m going to have to abort.”
Ari’s eyes went wide. “You’re lying.”
“Hey, a pilot has to make judgment calls. By the time the inquiry is done, word of this incident will have spread. Everyone on this shuttle knows what happened here. Your girl back on your ship knows. It’s hard to keep information bottled up.”
“You’re taking a big risk,” Ari said. “Why?”
“You seemed to think it was important. And everyone else seemed willing to kill over it. I just figured someone more important than me should make the call. Let our leaders talk it out with yours. I think they’ll be more willing to come up with a solution with their people screaming in their ears.”
Ari caught himself nodding again. “Sounds like a plan.”
“You’d better get your ship to send a rescue party. You’re going to need medical attention. Soon.”
“Rescue mission’s already scrambling,” Maura said. “They’re going to bring you directly to the decontamination lock.”
Decontamination. Ari chuckled. Maura’s image looked at him questioningly. “It occurred to me that no amount of decontamination is going to stop what’s coming.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Earth people,” he said. “They’re so different, Maura. Almost as different as the life down on the surface. I wonder if we should be worried about another kind of contamination.”
“We’ll adapt,” Maura said. “We’ll have to.”
Will the same hold true when Earth life finally meets alien ecology? Ari wasn’t the man to answer that question. Maybe no one was qualified.
But they’d find out. Soon enough.
Jay Werkheiser’s stories have appeared in Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Penumbra. This is he second story to be podcast by Escape Pod.